(CNN) — You can camp. You can picnic. You can even rent swan-shaped paddle boats to navigate one of six deep blue lakes that shimmer high in the Hindu Kush mountains, amid picturesque red-hued cliffs and rocky natural dams.
Sounds like an idyllic vacation destination, until you consider that Band-e Amir National Park lies in the heart of Afghanistan, a nation still firmly under “do not travel” advisories from the United States and other countries.
It’s been close to 10 years since Afghanistan officially designated the roughly 600-square-kilometer slice of central Bamiyan province as a national park in the hope that it would offer citizens a respite from the turmoil that has ravaged their country.
So did it work? Or like many dreams for the Afghan nation after it was wrested from control of the ultra-conservative Taliban regime nearly two decades ago, did it fail to take root?
For those who helped create the national park in 2009 after decades of delay due to war, the peaceful Band-e-Amir National Park tells an entirely different story of a country whose recent historical narrative has been defined by violence.
‘Beacon of stability’
“This park serves as an icon for the identity of the Afghan people for essentially a beacon of stability for three decades of chaos that they went through,” says Alex Dehgan, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan country director from 2006 to 2008.
The WCS, along with a number of international agencies and funding partners including USAID and the United Nations Development Programme, assisted the local Afghan government in helping to establish and manage the park.
Band-e-Amir National Park is located in central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, an area of the country that attracted worldwide recognition and international condemnation when the Taliban destroyed its famous 6th-century Buddha statues in 2001.
Despite being one of the country’s poorest and least developed regions, Bamiyan remains one of the safest areas of Afghanistan today.
“I have been to Band-e-Amir National Park 28 times during the past 15 years and I have not heard a single shot being fired,” says Afghan senator Prince Mostapha Zaher, grandson of Afghanistan’s last King Mohammad Zaher Shah.
“This does not mean that there are no security risks involved.”
Prince Zaher, who was appointed the first director-general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency in 2004, described the national park as “poetry for the eyes, poetry for the soul, poetry for existence.”
“Band-e-Amir is in a part of Bamiyan province that hasn’t seen any insurgency attacks since the international community has been there over the last 17 years,” says James Willcox, founder of UK-based tour company Untamed Borders, which regularly guides English-speaking tours to the country including the national park.
“Every time we take people [to Band-e-Amir], they have a great day,” Willcox adds. “Most people’s impression of Afghanistan is that it’s dry desert, full of just war and terror and misery and fundamentalism. Whereas all those things exist, but lots of other things exist as well…The general sort of banality of life doesn’t happen on the news, but it goes on all around us.”
‘Oasis of peace’
One of those aspects of everyday life is the annual Marathon of Afghanistan, the country’s only mixed-gender sporting event, the third edition of which was held in 2018 in Band-e-Amir National Park with 420 runners, half of whom were women.
Band-e-Amir is also noted for employing the country’s first-ever female park rangers, who assist with the growing number of local Afghan visitors and families who have been attracted to the park in recent years.
According to statistics provided to CNN Travel from Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, the Band-e-Amir site (which is populated by around 5,000 people who live in 14 villages within the park) attracted around 25,000 tourists in the year that it was declared a national park in 2009.
By 2018, according to NEPA statistics, that number had jumped to approximately 169,900 visitors, more than 99% of whom were Afghan citizens.
“It serves as one of the most notable places in Afghanistan where people from different parts of the country, different ethnicities, and different religious denominations can have family fun in an oasis of peace and tranquility,” says Richard Paley, who served as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan Country Director from 2013-2018. “It’s a very heartwarming sight to see.”
The roughly 600-square-kilometer park’s Islamic holy shrine to the prophet Ali is also a draw to religious pilgrims. The purported healing properties of its lake waters also bring visitors.
Willcox says Untamed Borders leads small group expeditions to Band-e-Amir in the winter where activities can include skiing, ice skating, and even curling.
Band-e-Amir sits at an elevation of around 2,900 meters in the valley and 3,500 meters in the mountains, with the vast majority of people visiting the park in the warmer months.
Willcox, who has been visiting Band-e-Amir since before it was a national park, says improved road surface conditions and increased use of social media by local Afghans who are now more exposed to the beauty of the park have helped contribute to a “vast increase” in Afghan visitors over the past three years.
Only 375 international tourists visited the park in 2018, according to the Afghan government.
“The area has become, biologically speaking, more stable but due to the ongoing war in other parts of Afghanistan, the international tourists are not as high as we would like it to be,” says Prince Zaher.
“While Afghan citizens from far away provinces do in fact visit in increasing numbers, the perception is on [the] part of international tourists that the country is in a state of war, insecurity and instability and while this is unfortunately true, it may be over exaggerated by some media.”
Alex Dehgan, who recounts local efforts to establish Band-e-Amir National Park in his 2019 book “The Snow Leopard Project and Other Adventures in Warzone Conservation,” described Afghanistan as a “biological Silk Road.”
He says he was struck by a rich biodiversity that’s home to a diverse array of transcontinental flora, fauna, and animal species including bears, hyenas, and leopards.
“The process [of establishing the park] was arduous since almost all of the scientific research data had been destroyed from that era of Afghan history,” says Prince Zaher. “There were many challenges which had to be overcome. The budget allocated to WCS and NEPA was minuscule compared with the actual scope of the project. We, however, found frugal ways and means to overcome it and we, in fact, did.”
While there was some initial opposition from local villagers unsure how national park status would impact their use of land that they have used for agrarian purposes throughout their history, Dehgan says he was inspired by how adeptly local Afghan communities mobilized to discuss the merits of the park designation in the years before it was established.
“What we did was have elections for all of the villages in the park within the watershed for Band-e-Amir,” Dehgan tells CNN Travel.
“We also had representatives from the regional government, national government, and provincial government to work together to create essentially a community conservation committee for the park or a management committee for the park.”
“That committee did something that actually the United States was having difficulty doing in Afghanistan,” Dehgan says. “This idea that you could get different levels of government to work together, and work together well, was actually fairly unique… We recognized that this was an important way to build Afghan identity.”
While conservation often takes a back seat in conflict zones, the model of Band-e-Amir has set an example, says Paley. While Afghanistan had no formally protected natural areas before the establishment of Band-e-Amir, he adds, there are now four.
There have also been improvements to the local economy since the park was established, he says. Some locals have set up guest houses, food stands, tea rooms and other small businesses to accommodate the growing number of tourists.
And it’s not just the villagers selling kebabs and handicrafts to visitors who are seeing the benefits of conservation.
“The same factors that protect the environment for the people were the factors that actually protect the environment for the wild animals, for the species we’re trying to protect,” Dehgan says. “Because if you deplete the rangeland, your livestock’s not gonna get through the winter, and you’re not gonna get through the winter.”
Yearning for peace
The Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which has installed new amenities including pathways and picnic areas in addition to co-managing the park with local authorities, is in the process of transferring full management of the park to the Afghan government.
Afghans have “a very highly developed sense of beauty,” says Paley, adding that Band-e-Amir itself is the traditional habitat for a number of wild animals.
These include ibex wild goats, urial sheep, Pallas’s cats, lynx, red foxes and wolves, although Willcox notes that visitors are much more likely to see smaller animals like marmots as well as livestock being tended to by locals.
Afghanistan, particularly Bamiyan province, has a long tradition of tourism, with the country being among the highlights of the once-popular “Hippie Trail” between Europe and South Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.
Back in 1979, tourism was the country’s number two source of revenue in 1979, according to Dehgan.
Decades of war and instability since 1979 have decimated the country’s international tourism industry and stalled initial efforts to establish Band-e-Amir as a national park.
According to Prince Zaher, those efforts began as early as the 1950s but were cut short by a military coup in 1973 and “left as an unfulfilled dream” of his late grandfather King Mohammad Zaher Shah.
“All Afghan citizens yearn for peace, security and stability in their long-suffering nation,” says Prince Zaher.
“Peace will come after 40 years of war. When will it come, I do not know. After a heavy thunderstorm, the sun always shines again. Let us pray that it is sooner rather than later.”